UK-Australia trade deal a dangerous precedent, warn Irish food and farm groups

Industry bodies say agreement has potential to undermine exporters here

The UK’s first post-Brexit trade deal sets a dangerous precedent for Irish food producers – farmers and food industry representatives here have warned.

The Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) and Meat Industry Ireland said the UK's proposed no-tariffs, no-quotas trade deal with Australia could undermine Irish exports to the UK, particularly beef exports, half of which go to the UK.

The fear is that Irish beef producers will be undercut on price and standards by their Australian counterparts.

"It's our most valuable market, in terms of volume and price. Any loss of shelf space would be very damaging for our livestock farmers, who are in a low-income sector," IFA president Tim Cullinan said.

“Trade deals between the UK and third countries have the potential to undermine what is a very important market for our beef exports,” he said.

Total Irish beef exports last year were valued at €1.9 billion, with 44 per cent going to the UK market.

The deal, which is the first to be negotiated by the UK since Brexit, allows Australian food producers almost unfettered access to the UK market. It plans to phase in tariff and quota-free access for agricultural products over time.

Given the distance of Australia from the UK and the fact that Australia's main export markets are in Asia, the deal is not expected to change or distort the UK's food market, at least in the short term.

Future accords

However, food producers here see the deal as an informal template for future UK accords with the US, Canada, Brazil, India and New Zealand, which could see the UK market flooded with cheaper food imports.

"Ever since the Brexit vote, the potential threat posed by future UK bilateral trade deals with other countries, particularly the US, Australia, Mercosur and New Zealand, has always been a serious concern for our meat exports to the UK market," a spokesman for Meat Industry Ireland said.

“These countries are major meat exporters and are generally lower priced, and with increased access to the UK market, would intensify competition,” he said.

“We have yet to see detail on how the phase-in period will apply, but it signals an intensification of competition for our exports in the UK market,” he said.

Food sector representatives in the UK have voiced concern over possible compromises on food standards, as the UK has a ban on producing and importing hormone-treated beef, which is permitted in Australia.

Downing Street said there will be a cap on tariff-free imports for 15 years, with other “safeguards” expected to be brought in to protect British farmers.

British prime minister Boris Johnson said the trade agreement will adhere to the "strongest possible" animal welfare standards, while Australian prime minister Scott Morrison insisted that Australian standards are "very high".

Separately, dairy exporter Ornua welcomed the five-year suspension of tariffs on Irish dairy products into the US.

Ornua, which owns the Kerrygold brand, are responsible for 90 per cent of butter exported from the EU into the US “and these punitive tariffs represented an unwelcome and unnecessary barrier to doing business”, it said.

The tariffs were suspended on foot of the EU and the US agreeing a truce in a transatlantic dispute over aircraft subsidies that had dragged on for 17 years.

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy

Eoin Burke-Kennedy is Economics Correspondent of The Irish Times